Situated roughly 20 kilometres (12 miles) southeast of Mount Everest and towering over the border between Nepal and Tibet (China), Makalu is the the fifth highest mountain on Earth and, as a result, a coveted mountaineering destination for highly experienced climbers.
Aside from its massive size, the mountain stands out from its surroundings for its near-perfect pyramidal shape. Makalu has four well-defined ridges that lead up to the summit.
While most climbers heading to the peak plan to go to the main summit, Makalu also boasts a couple of minor summits – Kangchungtse (7,687 metres/25,219 feet) and Chomo Lonzo (7,804 metres/25,603 feet) – both of which are also popular with advanced mountaineers.
Along with being one of the tallest mountains in the world, Makalu is also one of the toughest. To date, slightly more than 200 climbers have successfully made it to the summit, though many more attempt the ascent.
Quick Facts about Makalu
- The name Makalu likely comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “Big Black”, which was a secondary name for the powerful Hingu god, Shiva. In another local language, the peak is referred to as Kumba karna, or “the giant”.
- Makalu rises high above Makalu Barun National Park, which is a popular trekking destination in Nepal. Many hikers opt to spend three weeks to one month hiking to the Makalu base camp from Tumlingtar and back.
- One of the most notable features of Makalu is that the summit ridge also serves as the border line between Tibet (China) and Nepal. This means anyone who summits the mountain can stand with one foot in each country.
History of Makalu
Like so many other of the highest peaks in eastern Himalayas, little effort was made to climb Makalu until Mount Everest had first been summited.
As a result, the first attempt to climb Makalu came in the spring of 1954 when an American expedition led by the Sierra Club made it to about 7,100 metres (23,300 feet) before having to turn back due to inclement weather. Another attempt was made by a team of climbers from New Zealand (including Sir Edmund Hillary) later that year.
The first successful ascent of Makalu came one year later on 15 May 1955 when Lionel Terray and Jean Couzy – who were part of a larger team of French mountaineers – made it to the summit of the peak.
Experience Required for Climbing Makalu
Makalu is widely considered to be one of the most technically challenging and difficult mountains to climb in the world.
The majority of the climbing takes place at extremely high elevation, requiring a high level of physical fitness and ample time spent acclimatizing at lower elevations.
The majority of the ascent up the flanks of the mountain require moderate rock and ice climbing over the extremely exposed ridgelines. The final ascent of the summit pyramid then requires even more advanced rock and ice climbing over equally exposed terrain.
Main Routes up Makalu
The standard route to the summit is the same one that was taken by the French expedition back in 1955: a combination of climbing the north face and then the northeast ridge from the saddle between Makalu and Kangchungtse.
This route is considered to be the easiest, but still requires a high level of ice and rock climbing to accomplish.
Aside from this standard route, there are six other routes that have been climbed – the South East Ridge, South Face, South West Face, West Pillar Route, West Ridge and West Face – all of which are taken far less frequently and considered to be more challenging.
The toughest of these routes is the West Face route, which makes it alluring for professional mountaineers looking to challenge themselves, but ill advised for anyone else.